Peter Rees looks at a piece of old technology that is finding new uses in laboratory information management systems
This year could be the year that everybody finds out what Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is. In March, the world's largest retailer, Walmart, said that its top 100 suppliers were now attaching the tiny electronic 'tags' to all goods cases and pallets sent to the company.
While Forrester Research estimates that five billion consumer products will carry them by the end of 2005, research conducted for Microsoft in May 2004 showed that companies are hesitant about investing in RFID because they do not feel they know enough about the technology. In fact, 28 per cent of senior decision-makers in large UK manufacturing companies (i.e. those that should be leading the charge to adopt RFID) claimed never to have heard of it. Outside the retail sector, many more managers may be unfamiliar with RFID and its potential benefits.
Nevertheless, LIMS users seem on track to be early adopters of the technology, thanks to an influx of US government money into the coffers of that country's overworked forensic laboratories. 'Traditionally, these laboratories have been woefully under-funded,' says Bill Qualls of Starlims. Now, thanks to the Bush administration's efforts to modernise forensic services as part of a raft of 'homeland security' measures, these laboratories are the LIMS users that have thought about RFID the hardest. Some of these labs 'don't even have bar codes,' says Qualls. They could now move to the front of the technology queue thanks to the extra cash.
The technology is making inroads elsewhere in healthcare and in other science-based industries. In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration approved an RFID marker tag, made by SurgiChip, for hospital patients undergoing surgery. The tag will identify the patient and the type of surgery they need. This should minimise the likelihood of the wrong patient or the wrong site being operated on. And the FDA is actively promoting RFID tracking to help increase the security of the drug supply chain by providing an accurate 'pedigree', recording when and where a drug was manufactured. Some in the pharmaceutical industry see this as an extra burden, says Qualls. But the FDA argues that RFID will provide cost-reducing benefits in areas such as inventory control, although the agency's primary aim is to make drug counterfeiting extremely difficult or unprofitable.
Why all this fuss about RFID now? After all, the technology has a history dating back to the 1920s. Perhaps it is simply because it is at last becoming affordable. Like so much technology, its first major deployment, in 1939, was backed by the deep pockets of the armed forces - it was used by the RAF in WWII aircraft in order to tell friend from foe. In recent years, the size and cost of systems have shrunk considerably and they have been deployed for such diverse uses as animal identification, anti-theft devices, elec-tronic cash cards and beer keg tracking. According to RFID enthusiast and SAP executive board member, Claus Heinrich, an RFID tag used to cost around $2, but now the price has plunged to 20c, with every sign that it will drop further to as little as 5c in the near future.
There are three parts to an RFID system: tag; decoder; and antenna. The tag is a semiconductor chip that can hold and transmit stored information. The antenna generates a magnetic field that triggers the tag and initiates radio communication with the decoder. The decoder passes the information from the tag to a host-computer for further processing. At its simplest, the tag sends a unique identification number, which software can then associate with information such as its origin, expiration date, or storage requirements. The tag can be read at different ranges depending upon the frequency at which the system operates. Low frequency systems (100KHz to 500KHz) are cheaper, but can be read only at ranges up to 1.5m. The tags can also have a built-in power supply, making them 'active', which gives them a greater range. But these tags cost more - as much as 100 times that of their passive counterparts - and have a limited life (because the power eventually runs out). In practice, the variables of type and size of tag and reader performance mean there is a wide choice of possible ranges available, while chip capacities commonly go up to 4Kb and beyond.
A major advantage of RFID tags is that they don't need to be held up to the reader. They can be read as soon as they come within in range of the system's antenna and the process of sending the information takes milliseconds. This makes them an ideal replacement for barcodes in automated environ-ments such as manufacturing plants - and analytical laboratories - since the main disadvan-tage of bar-coding is the remaining human element. Because barcodes require line-of-sight for reading, they must be hand scanned. Barcodes can only store a limited amount of information and once a tag is printed the information it carries cannot be changed, without changing the tag itself. Depending on the type of tag, RFID does away with these constraints.
LIMS supplier Starlims first began looking hard at RFID when it was approached by a customer that wanted to implement radio tagging as part of a LIMS system for a large forensic project, according to Qualls. The laboratory needed to establish an evidence-trail for test samples taken from crime scenes - the so called 'chain of custody'. This can be as important as the evidence itself, since the outcome of a prosecution can depend on thoroughly documenting the movement of samples throughout the evidence-gathering process, and RFID tracking offers a robust but flexible solution. In the end, the deal fell through but it set the company thinking about the many potential applications of radio tags combined with LIMS software. It soon became clear that, while the business logic for forensic users was quite well defined, other laboratories might have a hard time justifying the cost, at current tag prices. Nevertheless, pharmaceutical manufacturers, bulk petrochemical companies and contract research organisations have all shown interest in RFID, he said. Cost and time savings are particularly important to contract research organisations (CROs) conducting clinical trials. According to consultants Cap Gemini, the length of the average clinical trial could be cut by five per cent and errors reduced with the help of radio tags.
Another set of LIMS users that could benefit from RFID are those conducting stability tests on drugs, says Qualls. Barcodes can easily become dirty or damaged - as any supermarket customer can testify - and they are at their most vulnerable in long-term studies. In fact, one RFID provider, Tagys, is already in the process of launching an RFID system to monitor test tubes exposed to extreme cold and temperature changes. The company's tags are designed to be able to withstand temperatures as low as -196°C, allowing the company to tag research samples stored in liquid nitrogen. Three Marseilles hospitals have begun using the system to replace a barcode labelling system, because labels frequently peeled away from the specimen tubes. In addition, RFID allows the tubes to be identified more easily and quickly, enabling more frequent and regular monitoring of pathology samples. Although the tags can be read through ice and dirt, water and nearby metal do cause problems, warns Qualls.
With all this potential, Starlims has continued to work on an RFID module for its LIMS system - the company expects to roll it out to another forensic laboratory by the second quarter of next year. The module was designed to manage information retrieved from multiple RFID readers set up within a testing site. Each reader is identified by its location and so tagged samples can be individually tracked around the site as they move from one laboratory to another. A chain of custody log on the host computer records every movement from a sample's arrival until tests are completed and it is returned to its source or disposed of. If a writeable tag is used, the log can also be recorded onto the sample label itself.
Meanwhile, related laboratory applications are popping up frequently. At the US Automation 2005 exhibition in March this year, electronics company Maxell launched an RFID system to track test tubes. Working with Japanese companies Kobe Bio Robotix and Tsubakimoto Chain, Maxell aims to make a bid for any application where bar codes are used. Improvements offered by the RFID system include the ability to scan a shelf of tagged tubes instantly and the ability to rewrite tags. At the moment, Maxell's system costs around three times as much as its bar code counterpart. Even so, the company expects the improved tracking and operational efficiencies will justify the initial cost.
Starlims' forensic LIMS module is a fairly straightforward implementation of RFID, but more innovative applications of radio tags beckon since they 'let you do some really cool things', says Qualls. But cost remains a big obstacle to businesses and to the widespread deployment by LIMS users. Tag prices are likely to fall further, driven by mass production for the retail sector and the adoption of new manufacturing technology such as conductive inks, but even experts do not seem able to agree how far and how fast. The FDA expects the technology to be ready for widespread use in tracking drugs by 2007. This seems achievable, since some companies have already begun deploying tags. For example, Purdue Pharmaceuticals has introduced a system called end-item tagging for its opiate drug OxyContin. An RFID tag contains the history of each product, including details of the particular batch of ingredients used in its manufacture. If there is a problem with an individual batch of drugs, it can trace all the RFID tags from the same batch and automatically recall them for checks. As well as deterring counterfeiters, tagging should also help prevent OxyContin being diverted for illicit use.
Of course not everything's rosy in the RFID garden. Consumer advocates are concerned about privacy implications in the retail and medical applications of RFID. For example, they fear that tags used for stock identification could also be used to monitor customers, because they continue to remain functional after the goods have left the shop.
None of this seems likely to stop businesses using tags. More dangerous says Claus Heinrich - author of RFID and Beyond: Growing Your Business Through Real World Awareness - is the tendency to sell the technology as a great new toy, which could stop it being taken as seriously as it should be.
There's no danger of that with something as practical as RFID-enabled LIMS.